Yoga Postures

  1. What are yoga postures?
  2. How did the yoga postures get their names?
  3. The Mountain Posture
  4. The Bow Posture
  5. The Wheel Posture

What are yoga postures?

A yoga posture is usually called an asana, though sometimes it's called a pitha.  Both these Sanskrit words literally mean "seat".  Originally, many centuries ago, an asana was the "seat" or platform on which the yogi sat for meditation.  "Having set in a clean place his firm seat (sthiram asanam), neither too high nor too low, covered with sacred grass, a deerskin, and a cloth, one over the other ... let him [i.e. the yogi] practise yoga for the purification of the soul" (Bhagavad-Gita 6:11-12, translation by S. Radhakrishnan).  Over time the word became associated with the physical position or "posture" itself assumed by the yogi, which is how we loosely define the word asana today.

Nobody knows where the postures came from.  Some scholars and teachers speculate that the earliest asanas were spontaneous, unstructured movements of yogis responding to powerful surges of divine energy in higher states of consciousness.  These asanas flowed one to the next, like a sacred dance, and only over many centuries did they crystallize into the more static positions we're familiar with today.  Wherever they came from, the postures have, in one form or another, been around for a very long time.  Archeologists have excavated, in the Indus River valley (which is  now in Pakistan), clay seals over 5000 years old that show a horned figure, possibly a deity, seated in a familiar cross-legged posture.

The earliest yoga postures were primarily used as "seats" for yoga breathing and meditation.  These asanas include Lotus Posture (padmasana), Accomplished or Perfect Posture (siddhasana), and Hero Posture (virasansa).  Just as nobody knows where the postures came from, so also nobody knows how many there are. T.K.V. Desikachar claims that his father, T. Krishnamacharya (who died in 1989 at the age of 100), one of the most influential yogis of the twentieth century, knew several thousand yoga asanas.

Most of the postures you'll learn in a typical yoga class were developed over the last thousand years by practitioners of Hatha Yoga, the yoga of "force".  These postures aim to improve our physical and mental flexibility and "firmness" (dridhata), to calm, purify, and energize our body-mind, and to "destroy" disease and death, which delivers us from the distractions and limitations of poor health and establishes a hospitable physical environment for our spiritual training.

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How did the yoga postures get their names?

It would be nice to report that once, a long time ago, some great yogi sat down and assigned a name to each and every posture for all posterity ... but of course this didn't happen.  The postures and their names no doubt evolved alongside each other over several thousand years.  The names have various kinds of relationships to the postures.  Some names describe the rough shape of the posture (e.g. Triangle), or how the body is arranged in the posture (Head-to-Knee, One-Foot-to-the-Head).  Lots of names are taken from the natural world, from living creatures (e.g. Dog, Eagle, Camel, Locust, Frog), plant life (e.g. Tree, Lotus), heavenly objects (e.g. Sun, Moon), or directions (West, East).  Other names compare the posture to common human-made objects (e.g. Wheel, Bow, Plow, Staff, Bridge, Couch).  A number of different sages and deities are memorialized in the names (e.g. Bharadvaja, Marichi, Matsyendra, Bhairava), even yoga itself (yogasana).  There are names that remind us why we're doing the posture in the first place (e.g. Liberation, Attainment, Self-delight).  Really names include everything about every aspect of our world, everything from birth (Womb, Fetus) to death (Corpse).  Be careful not to get confused though.  While the names are now mostly fixed by tradition, you'll sometimes find the same posture in different manuals with different names, or different postures with the same name.

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The Mountain Posture (Tada-asana)


Translation: The Sanskrit word Tada means mountain.
Alternate Name: The tada-asana is also known as the samasthiti-asana.  Sama means unmoved, equilibrium, and sthiti means standing upright or firmly, abiding, remaining, thus samasthiti means standing firmly without moving.
Difficulty: 1


1. Stand with both feet touching from the heel to the big toe, keeping the back straight and the arms pressed slightly against the sides with palms facing inward.
2. Slightly tighten or flex the muscles in the knees, thighs, stomach and buttocks maintaining a firm posture.  Balance your weight evenly on both feet.

Many common ailments and discomforts can be traced to poor posture.  If the spine is not properly aligned or if there is tightness or stiffness in the back, the result is often an imbalance in the body.  When this imbalance becomes chronic many kinds of disorders arise in the organs, glands and nervous system.

Performing the tada-asana allows one to observe one's posture closely and clearly recognize those problems which get masked or ignored by day-to-day activities.  As the posture is held and the breath, mind and body is quieted various effects will surface to indicate difficulties with the spine.  Favoring one foot over the other, shifting back and forth, drooped shoulders, tightness in the neck and upper or lower back, and various other physiological disturbances may appear indicating the need for further yoga practice.

The proper execution and continual practice of the tada-asana along with other postures helps to re-train the body to stand correctly and reverse the negative effects of poor posture.

When the tada-asana is performed properly and the mind is focused and free of distraction, the body is experienced as being rooted firmly to the earth and as steady and motionless as a mountain.


One repetition for several minutes is advisable.  The tada-asana is also recommended prior to and following any other standing posture.

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The Bow Posture (Dhanura-asana)


Translation: Dhanu means bow-shaped, curved or bent.  Dhanur means bow as in "bow and arrow".  This asana is so named because the body mimics the shape of a bow with its string stretched back ready to shoot an arrow.
Difficulty: 4


1. Lie on the stomach with the head turned to one side and the arms alongside the body with palms facing upward.
2. Turn the head and place the chin on the floor.  Exhale, bend the knees, reach back with the arms and grasp the right ankle with the right hand and the left ankle with the left hand.
3. While inhaling, slowly raise the legs by pulling the ankles up and raising the knees off the floor while simultaneously lifting the chest off the floor.  Hold the inhale breath.  The weight of the body should be resting on the abdomen.
4. Tilt the head as far back as possible.  Hold the posture as long as your can comfortably hold the inhale breath.
5. Slowly exhale bringing the knees to the floor, release the ankles, slowly bring the legs and arms straight down on the floor and turn the head to one side, assuming the prone posture you began with.

The most obvious benefit of the dhanur-asana is that it restores flexibility to the spine.  Regular practice will relieve lower back pain and release tension and strain in the upper back and neck area.  The alternating stretching and releasing of the abdominal muscles increases blood flow to this area and aids all sorts of digestive disorders and discomforts.  Strain or fatigue in the legs is also released after a few repetitions.  Extended practice will help develop upper-body strength.


The dhanur-asana is either held for the duration of the inhaled or between one and three minutes while breathing gently through the nostrils.  Repeat it two or three times.


The two variations of the dhanur-asana have to do with the method of breathing and the amount of arch of the back.  As one progresses with this asana and is able to hold the posture for a longer period of time, the posture can be held while slowly, rhythmic breathing is maintained through the nostrils.  As the spine becomes more flexible try drawing the feet closer to the head.  Some are able to join the top of the head to the soles of the feet although this is certainly not necessary to accomplish the dhanur-asana.

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The Wheel Posture (Chakra-asana)


Translation: Chakra means wheel, therefore this is the wheel posture.
Alternate Name: The cakra-asana is also known as the urdhva-dhanurasanaUrdhva means raised, elevated or upright and dhanur means bow.  Both "wheel posture" and "raised bow posture" describe the appearance of this asana.
Difficulty: 8 (full variation), 3 (bridge variation)

Full Variation:

1. Lie flat on the back in the shava-asana.
2. While exhaling bend the knees and bring the feet as close to the buttocks as possible with the soles of the feet flat on the floor.
3. Bend the arms at the elbows and place the palms of the hands flat on the floor directly under each shoulder with the fingers pointing toward the back.
4. While inhaling slowly, begin to raise the head, back and buttocks off the floor while arching the spine.  Continue to press downward on the hands and feet while raising the hips and stomach as high as possible.
5. Hold for the duration of the held inhaled breath.  When you can't hold the breath comfortable any longer, slowly exhale and return the back to the floor, slide the legs out straight returning to the shava-asana.


The Chakra-asana is more challenging than most other yoga postures.  Don't be discouraged if your unable to accomplish it right away.  Even attempting this posture without successful completion holds great benefit.

First and foremost is the strength and suppleness it restores to the spine.  It strengthens the arms, shoulders and upper back as well and stimulates the  cardiovascular system.  The chalra-asana has an overall tonic effect for the entire body.

As natural suppleness of the spine is restored after a period of practice you can begin to perfect the form of this asana and thus experience greater benefits.

First be certain that the arms are as straight as possible with very little to no bend in the elbows.  When you can hold this comfortably, begin breathing through the nostrils while holding the posture and attempt to get a greater arch in the spine by bringing your hands closer to your feet and/or bringing your feet closer to your hands.  Finally, you can extend the duration of the chakra-asana by doing several repetitions in sequence without resting in-between.  As you return from the posture keep the hands behind the shoulders and the soles of the feet flat on the floor and as soon as the back returns to floor immediately raise it and enter the full posture again.


The chakra-asana is either held for the duration of the inhaled breath or between one and three minutes while breathing gently through the nostrils.  Repeat it two or three times.

Bridge Variation


1. Lie flat on the back in the shava-asana.
2. Inhale and then while exhaling bend the knees and bring the feet as close to the buttocks as possible.  Grasp the left ankle with the left hand and the right ankle with the right hand.
3. Keep the head flat on the floor.  While inhaling, arch the back, raising it off the floor and thrusting the stomach and hips upwards.  Your body should be resting on the head, shoulders and feet.  The chin is pressed firmly against the chest.
4. Hold the posture for the duration of the held inhaled breath.  When you can't hold the breath comfortable any longer, slowly exhale and return the back to the floor, letting go of the ankles, returning to the sava-asana.


Although this variation is much easier to perform than the full chakra-asana, it shares several of its benefits.  In particular it will help to stretch the spine and relieve tightness in the upper back and shoulder area.

In order to get the full benefit of the bridge variation continual effort should be applied to raising the back upward and creating the greatest possible arch with the spine.

When bridge variation can be held comfortably for the duration of the inhaled breath, you can begin breathing slowly through the nostrils while holding the posture.  If there is no discomfort felt in the spine or shoulders then one should advance to the full variation of the chakra-asana as described above.  Both variations strengthen the back and promote flexibility of the spine.  Tightness in the back and spine results from poor posture, stress, a sedentary lifestyle and/or emotional disturbances.  You should begin to feel the tightness being released after just a few repetitions.

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